ON ROOT - A guest post by Isa
Sometimes you read something on Twitter that makes you go: “No! Get out!” But you hold back and say nothing because what’s the point anyway? But sometimes it pops up everywhere. You try to avoid it, you try to ignore it, you take a few breaths, you close the tab. Take a walk. And then you read it again. It’s at that point when you feel that you need to vent a little, even if it’s just to the nothingness. That’s the case with Root’s fate. I keep reading people say over and over how her development and character arc were thrown into the garbage can by killing her off. I’ve had it. I need to say something here. Even if it’s just to the nothingness. I loved Root. She's easily my favorite character in the last 10 years. Easily. I don’t think I have respected a character more since The X-Files’s Dana Scully. I guess part of it has to do with the fact that many of Root’s views on people, the state of the world and just her ideologies in general, I shared with her. Everything about Root was perfectly executed. You don't get that often on network. You get decently-written characters that are decently played by decent actors and, hey, if that performance happens to be on, say, a prestige drama,it'll get noticed by critics and, if they're lucky, by the Emmys. You get (and get a lot of) mediocre writing elevated by good actors. See some actors on House of Cards or even James Spader on The Blacklist. That type of characters you get a lot on TV. But Root? You don’t get many Roots. Root was the perfect example of a character that was superbly realised: she was studiously layered, very well-written and very well-acted. It's not easy to create a character like this and make her go through such a big transformation and make that transformation feel earned. I am a firm believer that development is not something that makes a good character. People often see development as something that makes a character better than others. I don't agree with this. I think you can only do so much with it and it depends entirely on your character. For comparison’s sake, Reese and Finch are not terribly developed characters. Especially Finch. You see his views in season 1 and season 5 and there's nothing too drastically different about his core values. His… Finchness was, in fact, a constant throughout the show. Granted, he became more aggressive towards the end, but even then, he kept vacillating.But unlike Reese, Finch was an excellent and complex character. He wasn't just someone that genuinely wanted to help people, he was also an asshole, he was a hypocrite, he was brilliant, and he was a coward, too. His high-mindedness got many people killed. He was great because the layers to his character were better realised than Reese's, who always seemed very one-dimensional: he's a hero who wants to save people. The end. Neither saw a drastic transformation,but that doesn’t make them bad characters.
But there are specific types of characters that call for huge development. I think some characters on The 100 really beg for it, but are severely lacking. But, then again the writers on that show are not particularly adept at developing a coherent story, let alone a character. That's why you get from Octavia to Octavia The Grounder to Octavia The Warrior in less than, what, five, six episodes? That's not development, that's bad writing. So, you see, even when you get characters that, on paper, are transformed, that transformation does not mean they are great characters. Above all, development, good development, must feel earned. And that is what they did with Root over four seasons. She started out as a terrific antagonist:clear motivations, incomparable skills, a rational cause and a plan she laid out and executed perfectly. She was never made to look incompetent, she was never, not once, made to look like she didn't have a point or like her cause was unjust, they never sugar-coated how dangerous and lethal she was, they never shied away from showing us just how amoral she could be. That's why some viewers had trouble accepting Root. You know, some people love their good guys and hate their bad guys and that's as far as their television experience goes.
More discerning viewers (a minority in the CBS audience it seems)appreciated that, for once, the show had its first brilliant antagonist. Root killed, Root kidnapped, Root tortured. But Root was right. That's the thing the show did so well. Here we have this character that did terrible things, but it was her who was in the right and our heroes in the wrong. Root's actions weren't born out of vengeance or poverty or daddy issues or a man. Root's actions were born out of her rationalization of the world we live in. She saw human life as outdated and corrupted in ways this artificial intelligence was not.She was the first character to personalize it, the first (and, really, the only one)to truly understand her (or Her), and the first to offer the big questions on the show. Her beliefs on The Machine drove the main storyline and her relationship with Finch gave us the show’s thesis statement: “If you want to make something that understands human behaviour, it has to be as smart as a human. You created an intelligence. A life.” (Season 2, Episode 1 “The Contingency”)I know people like to believe that after Root went through her big development and redemption arc she stopped believing humans were bad code, but I disagree. I think Root was always a misanthrope. I think what changed was that she found people who met her high standards for humanity. And once she found them, she made it her mission to be accepted among them. She chose her own family. That's where her God helped her, in redefining her methods, in making sure the collateral damage wasn't as costly. But she remained lethal, she remained an assassin, she remained just as ruthless. That's why her development was so fantastic. Because she learned to change her methodology, she found people to care for, but her goal never changed, why should it? Root was right: the world is corrupted and this AI was not. For Root,what changed was the 'how' not the 'what'. And in that 4-year journey, she was given relationships that humanized her. She was given a father figure in Finch,a man she respected above all; she was taken in by her God, an artificial intelligence who valued her and chose her; and she met a woman, just as brilliant and as lethal as she was, who loved her. Those relationships, all carefully developed, are what made Root's transformation feel earned.Root’s death does not, in any way, negate that journey. Did she have to die?That’s another matter altogether. Personally, given where the season went after episode 510, I think that she had to. For this ending, for this story? Yes. But there are many endings and there are many stories! In my head and in yours and in the writers’.
But this ending? It would not have been possible without making that decision. Does that mean I like that Root died? No. I fucking hate that Root died, I am still grieving. That’s also why I am writing this, it helps me. But I also appreciate the story it produced. Of course, people are free to disagree with me on this. It’s entirely valid. I appreciate what she, as a character, gave me as a viewer. Someone whose story defined not just the first big arc of the series, but its endgame. A character that powerful needs to be celebrated. I get not agreeing with the choice! We’re all different, we all read stories differently and stories affect us differently. What I cannot stand for is the constant trivialisation of how important she was to theworld of Person of Interest. She transformed a boring crime procedural into awonderful sci-fi tale about the humanity of artificial intelligence. Don’t trivialize what she meant to this show, what she made possible, where this story went every season thanks mainly to her. In football, there’s a stat called Key Pass, it means a pass that eventually led to a goal. Well, in every season, Root gave the key pass, whether it was her who scored or made the assist or provided theopening, it was her who made it. To me, her ending was heartbreakingly poetic and, you know, I do find merit in that. A lot of merit, actually, given how it servedthe overall narrative and the thesis statement of the show beautifully. Others do not and, you know what, that is fine, that’s fair. But let’s never trivialize what her story accomplished. Denise Thé said it: “She was that character for us. She came in and she stole the show. You would put her with any different character and they would have such an amazing dynamic. So, we just wanted to keep writing her more and more. She evolved that way for us.”